Friday, May 19, 2006

DENVER — A federal grand jury has indicted four suspects in the 1998 firebombing at Vail Mountain, then the costliest ecoterrorism attack in U.S. history and a crime that once appeared as though it would never be solved.

U.S. Attorney William J. Leone announced yesterday that the grand jury had indicted Chelsea Dawn Gerlach, 29; Stanislas Gregory Meyerhoff, 28; Josephine Sunshine Overaker, 31; and Rebecca Jeanette Rubin, 33.

All four already were facing charges stemming from a string of ecoterrorist incidents in the Pacific Northwest stretching from 1996 to 2001.

Two of the suspects, Miss Gerlach and Mr. Meyerhoff, were arrested in December on separate arson charges and are now in federal custody in Oregon. In December, a federal prosecutor identified Miss Gerlach as a suspect in the Vail arson at her bail hearing in Eugene, Ore.

The other two, Miss Overaker and Miss Rubin, remain at large, but FBI Special Agent in Charge Richard C. Powers said he was “certain they will be brought forward to face their charges.”

The suspects were indicted on eight counts of arson, one for each building destroyed in the Oct. 19, 1998, fire atop the Vail Mountain ski resort. The $12 million blaze consumed the Two Elks Lodge, two restaurants and several ski-patrol shacks.

The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that it was done to preserve the habitat of the lynx, a tuft-eared bobcat that hadn’t been spotted in Colorado for decades.

The culprits soon would prove as elusive as the lynx. An underground ecoterror group with close ties to the Animal Liberation Front, ELF has no organized leadership, no membership rolls and no known funding source.

The group’s attacks tend to be carried out by loosely organized cells that act independently. The group does have a regularly updated Web site, funded largely by generic Viagra products, but its webmasters insist they don’t endorse or participate in ELF actions.

After years with almost no publicized leads or suspects, the case suddenly sprang to life in December when federal authorities arrested six persons in five states on ecoterrorism attacks that took place in Oregon and Washington.

Two of those arrested, Miss Gerlach and William Rodgers, were identified by federal agents as suspects in the Vail arson. On Dec. 22, Mr. Rodgers committed suicide in his jail cell in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Mr. Leone said the indictments were the result of a seven-year investigation by the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the U.S. Forest Service; and local officials in Colorado and Oregon.

If convicted, the four suspects would face up to 20 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines for each count, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Denver.

Jen Brown, a spokeswoman for Vail Mountain ski resort, said the company was “pleased that the authorities continue to work so diligently on this case.”

“[We] will watch with interest as the case continues through the judicial process,” she said.

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